Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Is water quality in British rivers “better than at any time since the end of the Industrial Revolution”?

Whelan, M.J.; Linstead, C.; Worrall, F.; Ormerod, S.J.; Durance, I.; Johnson, A.C.; Johnson, D.; Owen, M.; Wiik, E.; Howden, N.J.K.; Burt, T.P.; Boxall, A.; Brown, C.D.; Oliver, D.M.; Tickner, D.

Is water quality in British rivers “better than at any time since the end of the Industrial Revolution”? Thumbnail


M.J. Whelan

C. Linstead

S.J. Ormerod

I. Durance

A.C. Johnson

D. Johnson

M. Owen

E. Wiik

N.J.K. Howden

T.P. Burt

A. Boxall

C.D. Brown

D.M. Oliver

D. Tickner


We explore the oft-repeated claim that river water quality in Great Britain is “better now than at any time since the Industrial Revolution”. We review available data and ancillary evidence for seven different categories of water pollutants: (i) biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and ammonia; (ii) heavy metals; (iii) sewage-associated organic pollutants (including hormone-like substances, personal care product and pharmaceutical compounds); (iv) macronutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus); (v) pesticides; (vi) acid deposition and (vii) other variables, including natural organic matter and pathogenic micro-organisms. With a few exceptions, observed data are scarce before 1970. However, we can speculate about some of the major water quality pressures which have existed before that. Point-source pollutants are likely to have increased with population growth, increased connection rates to sewerage and industrialisation, although the increased provision of wastewater treatment during the 20th century will have mitigated this to some extent. From 1940 to the 1990s, pressures from nutrients and pesticides associated with agricultural intensification have increased in many areas. In parallel, there was an increase in synthetic organic compounds with a “down-the-drain” disposal pathway. The 1990s saw general reductions in mean concentrations of metals, BOD and ammonia (driven by the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive), a levelling out of nitrate concentrations (driven by the EU Nitrate Directive), a decrease in phosphate loads from both point-and diffuse-sources and some recovery from catchment acidification. The current picture is mixed: water quality in many rivers downstream of urban centres has improved in sanitary terms but not with respect to emerging contaminants, while river quality in catchments with intensive agriculture is likely to remain worse now than before the 1960s. Water quality is still unacceptably poor in some water bodies. This is often a consequence of multiple stressors which need to be better-identified and prioritised to enable continued recovery.


Whelan, M., Linstead, C., Worrall, F., Ormerod, S., Durance, I., Johnson, A., …Tickner, D. (2022). Is water quality in British rivers “better than at any time since the end of the Industrial Revolution”?. Science of the Total Environment, 843, Article 157014.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 23, 2022
Online Publication Date Jun 27, 2022
Publication Date 2022
Deposit Date Sep 13, 2022
Publicly Available Date Sep 13, 2022
Journal Science of The Total Environment
Print ISSN 0048-9697
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 843
Article Number 157014


You might also like

Downloadable Citations